Party under pressure to ensure the right to assembly and protest

Even as the Communist Party of China (CPC) under new leader Xi Jinping has made clear its intent to stamp out a spreading anti-corruption movement by putting half a dozen activists on trial in the past week, the Party is facing fresh calls for reforms ahead of a key Parliament session set to take place in early March.

On Wednesday, three days after lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong was given a four year jail-term over his role in an anti-corruption movement, two more activists were sentenced by a Beijing court. Yuan Dong was given an 18-month jail term, while Hou Xin was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” but spared time in jail.

Mr. Xu was on Sunday found guilty of the same offence, but given a heavier four-year sentence. The charges stem from a series of public protests held last year in a number of cities, which saw activists hold up banners calling on CPC officials to declare their assets.

Many of the protesters were part of a “New Citizens Movement” that Mr. Xu helped establish last year, initially through informal dinner meetings held in Beijing that brought together a small group of people, including lawyers, entrepreneurs and scholars, advocating greater political participation for Chinese citizens.

So far, at least 10 people have been put on trial and face charges, while more than a dozen others are thought to be in detention. Mr. Xu was the most well-known member of the movement. A prominent lawyer, he had come to national prominence — and even received praise from state media — over his law firm’s pioneering work, which succeeded in reforming custody laws after a student was beaten to death in detention and also brought awareness to the plight of migrant workers, whose children are denied access to education in cities. His law firm Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative, was shut down in 2009 by authorities, on alleged tax violations.

During his trial last week, he defended the New Citizens Movement. “We did nothing to disrupt public order, we were merely exercising our freedom of expression as provided for by the Constitution,” he told the court. The charge of “disrupting public order” was tied to two protests: one held by some migrant workers, who Mr. Xu had represented and had gathered outside the Ministry of Education to call for overhauling restrictions that denied their children access to schools in cities; and the second tied to a protest calling for officials’ assets to be made public.

Mr. Xu told the court, “Here in absurd post-totalitarian China I stand trial, charged with three crimes: promoting equal education rights for children of migrant workers, calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, and advocating that all people behave as citizens with pride and conscience.”

Mr. Xu was not the first activist to be arrested over the movement. In October 2013, Wang Gongquan, a well-known billionaire entrepreneur, was detained over his involvement with the movement.

Last month, Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua, three activists who had carried out a public protest over disclosing assets in the southern province of Jiangxi were put on trial. Ms. Liu’s lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, said the charge of “gathering a crowd” stemmed from her campaigning for election in 2011 as an independent candidate.

Like Mr. Xu the lawyer, Ms. Liu, a retired factory worker, had first attempted to push for change from within the system. As China allows direct elections only at the local-level, Ms. Liu stood as an independent candidate for a position on the local People’s Congress, or government body, in the Jiangxi city of Xinyu.

In an interview with The Hindu during her campaign, she said she hoped to raise political awareness. “Our Constitution says we have a universal right to participate in government. I want us to achieve that right,” she said.

She said she found “overwhelming” public support, as she mobilised voters through social media. The local government, however, soon began disrupting her campaign, and went as far as threatening her daughter, who was enrolled in college, to dissuade Ms. Liu. Chastened by the government’s response, Ms. Liu later took to the New Citizens Movement, which offered a more direct — even if riskier — path for advocacy.

Even if the movement’s members have now been silenced, it has triggered debate about the way forward for reforms. Last week, 78 Beijing academics and lawyers penned an open letter calling on the government to abide by the Chinese Constitution and ensure the right to assembly and protest. This followed the charging of several activists with “disrupting public order” — an offence that brought a heavy four year jail term for Mr. Xu.

The letter argued that Article 35 of the Constitution, which guaranteed the right of assembly, association and demonstration, had been violated by a lower level administrative law restricting protests.

“By imposing administrative approval on constitutional rights, the law.. contravenes the Constitution,” said the letter, which was written by Teng Biao, a legal scholar at the China University of Political Science and Law, and signed by 77 other academics.

The letter said the restrictions “deprive in essence citizens of their rights to assemble, march and demonstrate and contravenes the Constitution.” It called for the National People’s Congress, or Parliament, to carry out a constitutional review when the annual session opens on March 5.

One of the signatories, Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan, told The Hindu in a recent interview that bringing about systemic changes — and moving towards Constitutionalism — was the only effective way to address issues such as corruption.

The new leadership under Mr. Xi has repeatedly pledged to crack down on graft.

But “the ruling party finds it hard to cut off its own interests,” he said.

“The anti-corruption campaign is being carried out within the Party, so there is no effective supervision.”

“At the end of the Qing Dynasty [in 1911],” he added, “people struggled for constitutional democracy. Japan took 20 years of reform to become a world power. India built a democracy. We have had 100 years of struggle, but we are still facing the same problem.”

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